Biography of John Calvin

CHHI 525-B01
July 3, 2014
Introduction                                                                                                                                                      1-2
Calvin’s Life                                                                                                                                                         2-7
Calvin as Teacher                                                                                                                                            7-8
Calvin as Pastor                                                                                                                                               8-10
Conclusion                                                                                                                                                          11

             For me, like many other people, when I hear the term “The Reformation,” the first thing that comes to mind is a man named Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. While it is true that not everyone has the same mental image, I would assume that this is the case. Martin Luther played a crucial role in igniting the reformation movement but it would be a young Frenchman in Geneva that would turn the world on its head. There was a great commonality between these two men and some huge differences.  Luther was fiery, spontaneous, and explosive, while Calvin was more careful, pensive and systematic. Luther has been likened to a bull, stubborn and strong headed, whereas Calvin has been compared to an owl, wise and calculating. Calvin was a logical systematizer, quiet, and thoughtful, with a far more stable character.[1]
            It should also be noted that the differences between the two men did not stop in their personalities. As they grew older their physiques, showed tremendous differences, Luther was what you might call a portly man while Calvin was more slender. Bruce Shelley makes note of these differences by stating, “As Luther grew older his face and figure filled out, and a kind of confidence and peace with himself appeared in the lines of his eyes and mouth. As Calvin grew older he became even thinner than he was as a young man, and the perpendicular lines of his long nose and firm, thin lips suggest the increasingly flint like qualities of his mind and personality.”[2]This is just a minor groundwork for us to come to know who this man was not only as a man in history, but as a pastor and as a teacher also.
Calvin’s Life
            John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 to parents Gerard and Jeanne Cauvin in the small town of Noyon, France. This town is located about sixty miles northeast of Paris. Calvin’ s father was a notary, or financial administrator, for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Noyon diocese and thus a member of the professional class.[3]When John was only eleven years old, Gerard had used his influence to gain his son a chaplaincy at the Noyon Cathedral.[4]Over the next few years Gerard would acquire several more of these positions to pay for John’s education.[5]
            It would also be around this time when John would leave home and go off to school and study at the University of Paris. While in Paris he would study theology as means of preparation of entering into the priesthood. “Most of Calvin’s early coursework concentrated on improving his knowledge of Latin, for that was the language of all teaching and learning in the universities of that day. Until students mastered Latin, they could not advance toward a degree.”[6]In  1528, he graduated with a Master’s degree, “having received the finest education of the day in the study of Latin, literature, logic, theology, rhetoric, and philosophy.”[7]After his graduation Gerard attempted to gain several more chaplaincy appointments for his son, however there was some type of falling out between the bishop and himself. Due to this falling out, Gerard convinced his son to study law instead to make a better living.
            John would go on to study law at the universities of Orleans and Bourges. It would be at these two prestigious universities John would study under two of the most famous jurist of the time, Pierre de l’Estoile and Andrea Alciati.[8]It was during this point of his education that Calvin grew in his humanist interest, while also learning Greek and sharpening his analytical and persuasive argument skills. Lawson points out that, “It is possible that he came to a deeper understanding of evangelical truth through his Greek teacher, Melchoir Wolmar. Subsequently, Calvin was converted to Christ.”[9]Even after the unexpected death of his father Gerard in 1531, John still continued his law degree that he completed in 1532.
            During Calvin’s time in Paris he had become close friends with a man named Nicholas Cop who was the rector of the University of Paris. In November of 1533, Cop would deliver a rousing address for the opening of the winter semester. According to Lawson, “The message was a plea for reformation on the basis of the New Testament and a bold attack on the Scholastic theologians of the day. Cop encountered strong resistance to his expressed “Luther-like” views. Calvin is believed to have collaborated with Cop on the address, as a copy of the manuscript exists in Calvin’s handwriting. As a result, Calvin was forced to flee Paris before he could be arrested.”[10]
            Calvin needed a place to lay low so he went into hiding at the estate of Louis du Tillet, who was a well-to-do man that had a heart for the Reformation. Calvin would spend five months there enjoying du Tillet’s extensive theological library, reading the Bible and the church fathers, Augustine in particular. “By hard work, genius, and grace, Calvin was becoming a self-taught theologian of no small stature.”[11]1534 would be a very interesting year for Calvin, he would relinquish his role of his ecclesiastical post, and would lose a brother, I am not sure if it was his only brother or not. The reason for this loss as Harrison points out is,
In the fall of 1534, French Protestants found themselves in a significantly more dangerous position. During the night of October 18, some Protestant daredevils placed posters all over Paris calling for support of the Protestant cause. They put one on the inner door of the royal bedroom. The king was furious and fearful that agents of revolution could get so close to him. This “Affair of the Placards” resulted in the arrest of hundreds of Protestants. Thirty-five people were burned at the stake. Among those killed was Calvin’s brother Charles.[12]
            It would be in 1535, just one year after his conversion at the age of twenty five, the young Calvin would write the beginnings of his magna opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Amazingly, Calvin would write a plea of tolerance to the king of France in the preface of this work, with the hope that the persecution of Protestants would stop. Calvin chose to go in to exile in the city of Basel, Switzerland. While there Calvin made the decision to move to Strasbourg, Germany where he intended to lead a quiet life of a scholar, but the Lord had other plans for him. On his way he was taken on a detour through Geneva, Switzerland; where he would meet the local leader William Farel, who had been leading the Protestant movement for ten years.[13]Almost, every historian when dealing with Calvin and Farel’s meeting resorts to the telling of how Calvin was hesitant to stay more than one night, it was not until Farel called down an imprecatory threat upon Calvin that he agreed to stay on and help the city.
            That faithful night in July 1536 would change the course of history, as we know it. Calvin would begin his tenure in the city first as a lecturer then finally as a pastor. Alister McGrath points out, “Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to stay in Geneva, where he assumed the office of “reader” (lector) of Holy Scripture. He was never “ordained” in any sense of the term.”[14]But things in Geneva were not easy going for the reformer, Farel was not the easiest person to work with, and the city was reluctant to accept the reforms in which Calvin was trying to implement. One of the reforms that he wanted to implement had to do with church discipline around the Lords supper.[15]This was not taken very well by the leaders of  the city and “This crisis reached the boiling point on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1538,  when Calvin refused to administer Communion to certain leading people who were living  in open sin. The tensions grew so great that Calvin and Farel were forced to leave the city.”[16]
            Calvin went to no other place than Strasbourg, where he was originally headed when Farel convicted him to stay in Geneva. While there he was convicted by Martin Bucer to continue his pulpit ministry to the 500+ French refugees that were living in the city. Shelley observes that,
The next three years spent in Strassburg were probably the happiest in Calvin’s life. As pastor of the church of French refugees he was free to carry out his disciplinary measures; he was a successful teacher of theology; he was honored by the city and was made its representative to important religious conferences in Germany. He married a widow with two children during these years and she remained his helpful companion till her death in March, 1549.[17]
Calvin reluctantly returned to Geneva after being gone for three and a half years, Farel chose to return to his home country. This time the leaders of Geneva were willing to listen to Calvin and he almost had free reign to rule how he saw fit. “Under his direction, the government of Geneva was transformed into something like a Protestant theocracy. It became known as  ‘Protestant Rome’ to reflect its new importance.”[18]It is during this time that the final revision of the Institutes will be written; Calvin will lose an infant son (and still preach and teach the sovereignty of God) and he will establish the Academy. Hill informs us that,
This Academy taught Protestant theology as well as providing a rigorous training in science and humanism—making it a Protestant answer to the schools of the Jesuits at this time springing up across Europe. Four Schools were also opened in Geneva for younger students, and like the Academy their courses were later made free—thus creating in effect the first integrated, free, state-run education system of modern times. [19]
According to Calvin, four offices governed the church: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. Calvin would himself hold two or more of those roles up until the very day he died. Calvin who was thought to suffer from IBS (irritable bowl syndrome), would die what would be considered a rather peaceable death in the arms of his successor Theodore Beza. He went to be with the Lord whom he loved so passionately on May 27, 1564 quoting Scripture none-the-less—“How long, O Lord?” (Pss 79:5; 89:46)[20]
Calvin As Teacher
            Most of us think of John Calvin the theologian and tend to forget about the other roles the man filled; one of the most important roles he filled was that of teacher (or doctor).  Calvin took this role very seriously so much so he “took a personal interest in the instruction of children, providing a catechism in question and answer form and a primer to be used in school for teaching the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and the Ten Commandments, along with the alphabet.”[21]Calvin did draw a distinction between the office of teacher (doctor) and pastor. The office of doctor (or teacher) as described in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, was focused entirely on instruction and included none of the administrative or disciplinary functions of the pastoral office. [22]
            According to Puckett, “ The Ecclesiastical Ordinancesrefers to the office of doctor as the “order of the schools.” It explains that the one in this office may be a “lecturer in theology” and it suggests that it will be good to have one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. This office is especially focused on preparing candidates for ministry.”[23]The major differences between those roles was one was focused on teaching the congregation (pastor) and the other was focused on teaching the teachers (doctor).  It would be Calvin’s role as teacher that would span the centuries, since the Institutes were intended to be mainly a teaching tool to those already engaged in Bible study.
Calvin As Pastor
            While Calvin was the consummate teacher, his ultimate calling was to the role of pastor.  Shawn Wright notices several different facets in which his pastoral nature takes place. First, can be found in the agendas that Calvin wrote to the Genevan church to change to a more biblical direction.[24]Second, his Catechism would be used to help in the basic instruction of the Christians in Geneva. Third, take a look at Calvin’s letters, which were often very pastoral in nature. He was often asked to pastor persons from a distance, through letters and he did so, willingly and thoroughly.[25] From the very beginning the Institutes were pastoral in nature having a very pedagogical nature. As such “we see that Calvin was not merely about increasing his readers’ data set; he didn’t just want to give them more information. His labors had a relational end.”[26]
            Calvin’s pastoral vision was multi-faceted with the first facet being the soli deo Gloria; because, God is the one constant reality in the universe.[27]Another facet of his pastoral vision was how he viewed man, he thought of humans as thinking beings, capable of affection that have and seek out experiences.[28]The next aspect to his vision was the fact that Christians must have faith in Christ. Calvin thought the life of a Christian was a battle, an extremely difficult pilgrimage as the believer wearily struggled to get to his final home in heaven.[29]The final facet of his pastoral vision is that it was eternal in perspective, meaning he sought to live it out with the great end in mind.  
            He did not take the role of pastor as something to be taken lightly; there was much import to it. It is to be one of comfort for those who need it, rebuke for the others as needed; it is for strengthening the believers in their faith so that they can face the battles of daily life. There were some who tried to separate the Spirit of God from his word, “But a faithful pastor will not do that. He will recognize that the Spirit functions by giving and sustaining vital Christian life through his word preached.”[30]He also believed that the piety of the pastor should be easily visible in his life.  There are two major applications to pastoral life Calvin would stress, “first is the submitting to and adoring the sovereign God and, second, Calvin’s desire to comfort weary Christians by reminding them of the reality of their sovereign heavenly Father. “
            Calvin believed in stressing the sovereignty of God. Because “people who deny God’s complete providence ‘defraud God of his glory.”’ Calvin wanted his followers to understand two major things, that predestination is of great importance, and prayer should play a major part in the believer’s life. Humility should be a mark of those who believe in predestination. Prayer ultimately honored God as sovereign, because it shows how we trust him through all things, because he has the will and the power to assist us.[31]With the both of these Calvin’s ultimate focus is on the Glory of God and how we can show we trust him to be who he says he is.  While this was a role he tried as hard as he could to escape, it turned out to be the favorite role for this man of God, he enjoyed shepherding people and trusting God to take care of them.
            Calvin’s life was not what he or his father ever anticipated it would be. It was actually much greater. The works we have been given by this man cannot be overestimated. His work that was created in the 16th century for the average man has become a go to work for seminary students, pastors and even lay people who want a greater understanding of theological topics. His life was not one of comfort and ease, but it was one of great importance. I would hate to imagine what the 21st century would look like without John Calvin’s role in century’s prior.
            He was extremely vital for the growth of the church and the spread of Christianity as a whole. I can only hope to be as faithful a teacher and pastor as he was. May his pastoral vision enhance the way we view God and those we lead. It is my hope that reading about Calvin’s life has inspired you to trust God even in the small stuff because he is ultimately in control.

Barry, John D., and Lazarus Wentz, eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.
Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002.
Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Vol Two: The Reformation to Present Day. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Harrison Jr., Richard L. John Clavin-Spread of the Reformatioin. Nashville: Graded Press, 1988.
Hill, Johnathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Raphds: Zondervan, 2006.
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Touchstone Book, 1976.
Lawson, Steven J. Pillars of Grace. Harrisonburg: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012.
McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Harper One, 2007.
Puckett, David L. “John Calvin as Teacher.” Galaxie Software. 2009. (accessed May 18, 2014).
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language Second Ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.
Wright, Shawn D. “John Calvin as Pastor.” Galaxie Software. 2009. (accessed May 18, 2014).<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

                  [1]Steven J Lawson, Pillars of Grace. (Harrisonburg: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012)501.
                  [2]Bruce L Shelley, Church History in Plain Language Second Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995)257.
                  [3]Lawson, Pillars, 504.
                  [4]Ibid. 504.
                  [5]Richard L. Harrison Jr., John Clavin-Spread of the Reformatioin.(Nashville: Graded Press, 1988)15.
                  [6]Ibid., 15.
                  [7]Lawson, Pillars., 504.
                  [8]Justo L.Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol Two: The Reformation to Present Day. (New York: Harper Collins, 2010)78.
                  [9]Lawson, Pillars., 504.
                  [10]Ibid., 505.
            [11]Ibid., 505.
                  [12]Harrison Jr., John Calvin., 18.
                  [13]Lawson, Pillars., 506.
                  [14]Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. (New York: Harper One, 2007)90.
                  [15]Lawson, Pillars., 506.
                  [16]Ibid., 507.
                  [17]Shelley, Church History., 259.
                  [18] Johnathan Hill, Handbook to the History of Christianity. (Grand Raphds: Zondervan, 2006)264.
                  [19]Ibid., 264.
                  [20]Lawson, Pillars., 511.
                  [21]Puckett, David L. “John Calvin as Teacher.” Galaxie Software. 2009. (accessed May 18, 2014) 45-46.
                  [22]Ibid., 46.
                  [23]Ibid., 46.
                  [24]Shawn D. Wright, “John Calvin as Pastor.” Galaxie Software. 2009. (accessed May 18, 2014)5.
                  [25]Ibid., 5.
                  [26]Ibid., 6.
                  [27]Ibid., 6,
                  [28]Ibid., 7.
                  [29]Ibid., 8.
                  [30]Ibid., 10.
                  [31]Ibid., 14.

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